Restaurant Review: Giulia in Cambridge

The latest Italian newcomer favors authenticity over flash, mostly to great success.

By | Boston Magazine |
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Photographs by Anthony Tieuli

Boston has certainly never had a dearth of Italian restaurants. There are the North End red-sauce joints, of course, which are mostly Italian-American, and a handful of chef-owned places that happily offer inspired takes on the standards—Coppa, La Morra, and Il Casale. But there haven’t been many restaurants offering much in the way of real Italian—those simple, perfectly fresh dishes you’d find in a classic trattoria. That kind of food doesn’t seem to sell.

Enter chef Michael Pagliarini, who, along with his wife, Pamela Ralston, opened Giulia in the Porter Square area last December. Pagliarini has the background and the training to rethink authentic Italian cuisine: He grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, where Italians, mostly from the far south, came to work in coal mines, and his own family heritage is Umbrian, above Rome and south of Tuscany. (His relatives farmed lentils, a crop the region is famous for.) Working under Grant Achatz at Trio, the Chicago-area predecessor of Alinea, educated Pagliarini in the avant-garde. His most recent full-time gig, as chef de cuisine of Via Matta, taught him Michael Schlow’s brand of gilded, greed-is-good fare, with butter sauces and lush presentations.

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Salmon with spring vegetables, $25

Now may be the moment when true simplicity can sell, and for his first restaurant, Pagliarini has chosen a more-rudimentary style—logical for a city and a time that demand local sourcing and ownership before innovation. It has a homemade look—exposed brick, reclaimed-white-oak timbers, and colorful table runners sewn by Ralston’s sister—and an earnest waitstaff, along with a chef who makes nightly rounds in the dining room. There’s a long bar on one side, with a cocktail program that’s a work in progress, a server told us, and a wine list that is, too. But the list is already far more nuanced than many Italian ones around town, with, for instance, the fruity but not overly sweet kerner, a silvaner-riesling hybrid from the abbey of Novacella, in the Trentino-Alto Adige region bordering Austria, and the always-reliable Livio Felluga pinot grigio, from the northeastern corner of Friuli (both $14 a glass).

The menu has high, true-to-the-source ambitions: to serve Italian food with a focus on the ingredients, as many of them local as possible. The simple, seasonal first courses, each with a fillip to add interest (say, an orange-and-anchovy vinaigrette over grilled escarole and radicchio, $10, or sheer, rich lardo draped atop puffy, spongy little disks of warm semolina, $5), stick to the modest, elevated but genuine theme. The same sentiment can be found in the desserts—including creamy, airy homemade gelatos like hazelnut affogato with chunks of chocolate shortbread, and pistachio with cherry compote and a pizzelle (both $6).

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Vermont quail with pork sausage, $28